Likoma Ferry (Malawi)

Travel Stories: Overland Border Crossings

Contents: Travel Stories

Malawi to Mozambique: Stuck on the ferry for visa negotiations!

[2015] The island of Likoma is a wonderful relatively little-visited place in lake Malawi, belonging to Malawi but closer to Mozambique. There is no proper port so the local ferry just lowers its ramp and the passengers and goods literally slide into the swallow water, or climb up from it. My plan was to take this ferry to go to Mozambique, where it was possible according to “the internets” and the Lonely Planet, to get a Visa on Arrival.

Likoma Ferry (Malawi)
Ferry arriving at Likoma, Malawi

At about 6am, I climbed the ramp to the ferry and we departed for Mozambique. No customs official was around to put the exit stamp on my passport. When the ferry reached the other side, the crew told me to wait aboard. The place, similarly to our “port” of origin, had no pier; it was just a beach with a few bamboo huts and a couple dozen people waiting to get on the ferry or to retrieve merchandise from it. 10 minutes later the official arrived and told me that as I had no exit stamp, I had to go back to Malawi. I told him that was impossible since the ferry was not going back. Then he said that they were not issuing Visas on Arrival at this entry point. I replied that the Mozambican embassy in Malawi had told me that I could get a Visa on Arrival there (it was true, and in addition the embassy had told me the visa there would cost me 100 USD). The official eventually gave me the Visa on Arrival at a cost of 50 USD (later on I met other travellers who had paid anywhere between 30 to 120 USD for the same visa).

Armed with my visa, I jumped in the water, walked towards the huts and asked the locals how I could go to the bigger cities. They pointed back to the ferry I had just jumped off, which was about to depart, so I ran back and climbed up in the last minute to continue my journey towards the south of the lake.

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Mauritania to Mali: Locked up in a desert Police Station!

[2016] The bus journey from Nouakchott in Mauritania to the border with Mali is about 1100km long.

Mali: UK Government Foreign Travel Advice
Mali: UK Government Foreign Travel Advice (with the exception of the fantastic Bamako, most of the other interesting sites like the Djenne Mosque, Dogon Valley and Timbuktu are in the “red” zone)

At the time a good friend and myself made this journey, the U.K. government had warnings about traveling around in Mauritania and Mali, with several parts of the two countries being in the “yellow – only essential travel” or the “red – no travel” categories. The border between Mauritania and Mali was one of those “red” zones. The bus was stopped many times by the police on the way and at about 10 in the evening, in the desert not far from the border, we were stopped again.

The officers asked me and my friend to get off the bus and follow them. To our surprise and despite our protests, our bus left.

Mauritania Police Station
The Mauritania border Police Station where we spent the night locked up

We were surrounded by 4-5 policemen who were asking us rhetorical questions like “don’t you know that westerners are not allowed here?” Soon afterwards they walked us to the desert police station and told us that we were going to spend the night there for our safety. An officer locked us inside, and joined the other armed policemen who were going to stay guard outside the building during the night. There were no beds or mattresses, so we just slept on the floor together with a number of insects that were jumping or crawling all over. The night was hot and humid. At some point in the middle of the night I was woken up by some loud snoring and my first thought was that one of the guards had lied down to sleep next to us, but to my surprise I realised that the noise was coming from my dead-tired deep-sleeping female companion!

Next day in the morning an officer unlocked the door and a police car drove us to the border where we were relieved to re-join the bus to Mali.

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Senegal to The Gambia: Asked to buy a visa when I did NOT need one, then was left at the border overnight and then had to buy a fake vaccinations booklet!

[2016] After the previous tricky border crossings in Western Africa (see Mauritania to Mali ), I expected the one between Senegal and Gambia to be a breeze, as I did not require visas for any of these two stable countries. But I was wrong!

My friend and me arrived at the border at about 8 in the evening, where the border official told me that Greeks need a visa, which costs 60 EUR. I mentioned I had checked online and that I do not need a visa, but he insisted that I do, showing me the payment receipt of another Greek person who had paid for a visa at that border a couple of weeks before. I told him that this does not prove that Greeks need a visa for Gambia. Then the official just walked out of the office and we stayed there waiting. A few minutes later I asked his colleague when the official was going to return, and he told me “tomorrow morning”! That was a shock! We finally found a place in the nearby village to spend the night and next day in the morning got back and settled at the official’s office. Same answer, by a number of officials, “Greeks need a visa”, together with “when we come to your country, we obey your laws”, comments clearly relevant considering they had all been in Greece and had obeyed our laws there, as we Greeks dutifully do as well. I asked for the official’s boss who also confidently confirmed that Greeks need a visa. Eventually, the boss called the central offices in the capital, where they told him that Greeks do not need a visa. That was a relief, because by that point I was just about ready to give up and pay the money so that we can move on! This was not the end though!

Vaccinations Booklet bought in the border for 5 EUR
Vaccinations booklet bought in the border for 5 EUR

As soon as we walked outside the passport control office, another guy, one would think a doctor, ran out of an office next-door and asked to see our vaccination booklet (interested mainly in yellow fever). We told him we had done the vaccinations (which was true), even though we did not have the booklet with us, and that it would be dangerous to do them again. He asked what sounded reasonable, “how do I know that you have really done the vaccinations?” but then like a good descendent of Hippocrates, offered to help us out of the stalemate by giving us a booklet with all vaccinations possible, for the amount of 5 EUR. We thought it was a good deal (they might ask for it in other countries too) and paid. Since then I have been carrying both the real and the fake vaccination booklets with me, as the fake one has a vaccination for cholera which is missing from the real one.

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Zimbabwe to Zambia: The strangest “attack” ever, with an erotic twist!

[2015] When I was crossing the border from Zimbabwe to Zambia, it was only about a month after having been attacked in Madagascar, so I was still a bit edgy.

After I cleared immigration on the Zambian side, I got out of their building and negotiated the transfer fare with a local taxi driver who was stationed there. When we agreed, I went towards the front passenger’s door and opened it with my left hand. At that point, and while I was still standing outside the car with the door open, I saw with the corner of my eye, the dark figure of a hand trying to grab something from my right hand with lightning speed! The feelings of the Madagascar incident flashed back instantly. I turned around fast ready to defend myself!

The aggressor baboon
The aggressor baboon

To my total surprise and relief, the aggressor this time turned out to be a Baboon, who just wanted to steal a bug of cashew nuts I was holding with my right hand. And hilariously, the thrill of the event seemed to have sexually aroused the Baboon. I could not resist taking a photo of the animal, who was simply sitting at the opposite side of the pavement!

I then continued my journey carrying just a scratch on my right hand from this bizarre “attack”. Only in Africa!

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Ghana to Togo: A Fake Desk That “Checks” for Fake Money

[2017] This story was lived by River (Jiang) Yin, a Chinese female traveler in the border between Ghana and Togo:
“I was about to cross the border between Ghana and Togo at Alfao. On the Ghana side, there was a desk with five-six men and their boss sitting there. The men blocked my way and said they had to check me for fake money.

40000 CAF
40000 CAF

I stood in front of the desk and gave the man sitting there a pack of ten bills of 10000 CFA each. He “checked” them by counting them very fast while I was carefully looking at him. We repeated this for three separate packs of 10 bills. Then I was told I can leave. I walked for about 30 meters to the place where they stamp the passports, and then crossed the border. When I arrived at the hotel in Lome, I realized that 4 bills (40000 CAF) were missing from one of the packs of bills that they had “checked” at the border. In fact, I had previously heard about this “fake money check” scum, but I guess I was too tired from the bus trip and was not very alert.”

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Tajikistan to Afghanistan and back: ending up in an Afghan jail!

[2015] This story was lived by Stevie a half-British half-Austrian “ultra low budget traveller, adventure seeker and embracer of the unknown on an endless journey around the world.” His crossing to Afghanistan from Tajikistan is one of the best border-crossing stories I have heard:
“Afghanistan was the last Persian country I didn’t visit so far and I wanted to go there all the time. I didn’t expect my short journey to this place to be so exciting.

From Tajikistan, my travel mate Ben and I decided to do a short detour to Afghanistan, just touring around the Wakhan Corridor (which is said to be the safest place in Afghanistan since it’s such a remote area the Taliban are not interested in it) and then going back to Tajikistan again.

When I had applied for the Tajik visa in Bishkek I applied for a double entry visa but I got a single entry one (they said they don’t give double entry visas in Bishkek).

Getting the visa for Afghanistan was easy in Khorog. It took us 50$ each, one hour, a nice chat with the ambassador and signing a waiver form saying “all responsibility on our trip to Afghanistan belongs to us”. Not having a visa to get out of Afghanistan we thought “Ah no problem, we’ll go to Afghanistan with a one-way ticket. We will find a way back.”

Ishkashim border market
Ishkashim border market
From Khorog we hitchhiked to the border at Ishkashim and then after getting invited by a nice local to stay at his place we made it to the border the next day. We spent the day wandering around the Ishkashim border market until finally we found the right guy, an Afghan border guard who spoke pretty good English. We told him about our little problem with the Tajik visa. And he said: “You know, I also have a little problem. My salary is so bad.”

We walked into the border buildings very nervous not knowing who we should talk with. At the Tajik passport control the guy looked at our passports and we just hoped our friend informed him and everything would go right. The highest ranked officer sent everyone else out and each of us gave him a 100-USD handshake and he promised us that they will let us back in a week. We had to trust them and were very excited that we made it into Afghanistan without a Tajik exit stamp.

After staying two nights in the Afghan side of Ishkashim and sorting out some paper work (we stayed in the cheapest accommodation, the restaurant at the bazaar), our plan was to go over Faizabad to Kabul and apply for the Pakistan visa.

Anyway, on our third day in Afghanistan we found a driver who would take us to Faizabad – but only if we got dressed like locals to not show up too much. So we did and then we took the stunning road across the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains.

Stevie and Ben
Stevie and Ben
Well actually it was more a rocky donkey path than a road. In Afghanistan they have very few roads since nearly everyone is riding either a motorbike or a donkey.

After crossing the beautiful pass we got stopped by a ‘police’ checkpoint, got interrogated for hours, been handcuffed to each other and driven away. Actually we didn’t even know if they where police, military or Taliban. I asked them if they are police and they just replied: “Yeah, something like that”. That gave us confidence! Handcuffed together they drove us away in our own jeep putting some soldiers with us in the car. When I asked the guys with the guns “We are going to Faizabad now?” they replied “No, we bring you to Vardush to the Taliban, they pay good money for you.” That’s where I thought it’s over now. I had a nice life. Now there will be a last video of us on YouTube and that’s it. And then I had the worst two hours of my life preparing myself for my last hours.

When I realised that we were arriving at a highly fortified army base and not a Taliban camp, my heart rate slowly calmed down again. It was a high security prison for terrorists. I never thought I could be so glad to end up in jail in Afghanistan.

That’s how I landed in jail in Afghanistan.

After several threatening hours of interrogation they took us away everything and threw us in our cell. It was a basic cell room with nothing in it but the Quran where we were locked up with our driver and a tour guide who had the bad luck to be in the car with us. We expected to be in jail for long, long time – especially after getting fingerprinted, photographed and our DNA taken from our spit.

No one really told us why or how long we have to be in jail. Until the fifth day. One of the guards came to me and asked me “Why are you here?” It nearly made me laugh since that was the thing I myself wanted to know! I told him “I don’t know. Maybe you can tell me?” and he replied “Why is in your report written that you are Al-Qaeda ?” I just laughed “What is written in my report?!” Haha! They really thought we were Al-Qaeda. So we had to stay one week in a Taliban high security prison because our disguise was too good.

And then he offered us to stay one more night, but not in jail. He offered us to stay one night with him in his luxurious villa. And since our driver, who offered to take us back said it’s already late in the afternoon and we should leave tomorrow morning we agreed.

So we had our real Afghan experience, spent a whole week of our planed one week in Afghanistan in jail and went directly back to Ishkashim, where we crossed the border back to Tajikistan again. And as happy as we were to come into Afghanistan, we were to leave Afghanistan again.

It was an intense experience, but still I don’t regret going to Afghanistan.”

And finally a tip by Stevie:
“In Afghanistan the locals don’t have beards. Especially long beards are a sign of extremism. So if you really want to go to Afghanistan, it’s good to dress like a local to blend in and don’t stand out as a western tourist, but also to shave your beard.”

You can read the full account of this amazing story about “How not to Travel in Afghanistan” as it happened at Stevie’s blog “Stevie on the Move, Adventures in faraway Lands.

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